Friday, November 30, 2007

Entering the Aux Arcs

No one really knows where the name came from. Every account of basic Missouriana gives a different etymology of the term "Ozark." I've read that it comes from bois d'arc, the French name of Osage orange, a tree commonly found in fencerows in the Ozarks (and is still called bow-dark throughout the region); that it comes from "Aux Arkansas," or "to Arkansas" (but the source of "Arkansas" is just as dubious). I unofficially accept the early surveyors' explanation of the term: Aux Arcs means "to the arches," or, specifically, to the natural rock bridge that once stood as a landmark outside of Springfield, Missouri. Regardless of where the name came from, Ozark refers to the only mountain range west of the Appalachians and east of the Rockies, and encompasses 47,000 sq. miles of rugged, rocky terrain in Missouri. The Ozarks stretch from south of the Missouri River to the Boston Mountains of Arkansas. A small part of the Ozarks stretch into Oklahoma, Kansas and even Illinois. The St. Francois Mountains are the nucleus.

Culturally, the term "Ozark" carries almost as much cache as "Appalachian." In fact, the cultural heritage of the Ozarks is so entrenched in the concept of man-living-in-the-wild that locals brand their own souvenirs portraying bearded toothless men in cut-off trousers picking banjos as their blue tick hounds rest on the porch. Regardless of the commercial images of the "Ozark hillbilly," this geologically significant region is rich in a culture that begins with Native American settlements and continues today in Mennonite villages and a thriving population of Scots-Irish and German decendents.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Goodbye, Southeast Missouri

The Nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired in value. -Theodore Roosevelt

I had great hopes this week that I would be able to write tonight that the USACE's appeal had been accepted by the courts. Instead, I've read letters written by no fewer than 5 different lobby groups calling the St. John's Bayou-New Madrid Floodway Project a pork barrel project that aims to "turn wetlands into corn fields." This is perhaps the only time I will write this, but I hope the current administration decides to support the USACE instead of the environmental lobby groups. Within the next few weeks, Bush is scheduled to fork over 23$ billion to the USACE in support of various and sundry other projects. I don't know yet if the SJ-NMF Project is included.

Meanwhile, back in southeast Missouri, the great horned owl who lives behind the house continues to call every night around sunset. A pack of coyotes has made my house part of their nightly rounds through the county, lurking in the shadows of the mown lawn, leaving behind scents that drive Molly batty. I heard my first flock of snow geese last week but they were headed north where duck hunting enthusiasts have planted fields to make the birds stick around. Recent winds knocked all the brightly colored leaves off the trees in the park, leaving a barren landscape that makes visible all of the neighboring fields. Winter is setting in and Brother continues to shell pecans for his dog, Tip, and for his freezer.

I leave southeast Missouri tomorrow for my tiny bungalow in Columbia. While it's truly possible that I'll fill all of the closet space in the house with nothing but my vast collection of shoes and sundresses, I've felt guilty living among a 35% poverty rate in this big, nice house for two years. While many folks in the county have to ask for assistance from the state to cover their energy bills, I never see mine. Considering the size of the house, I imagine they're high, despite the weatherstripping and my constant scarf and hat use during the winter. My movers arrive tomorrow and will have to pack into the truck several big bags of mixed paper that I can't recycle here (but can leave on the curb in Columbia). With my smaller ecological footprint, I leave behind the comfort of having wildlife in my yard, the freedom to sit on my back balcony in nothing but undergarments, the tranquility of isolation, and the fabulous sunsets over the park. However, much to the dismay of my regional supervisor, I'll still make all of the natural resource decisions for the park (I hear him tonight: "Dang it! I thought I would be able to RoundUp all the poison ivy!").
The new Ozark Highlands banner will go up in a couple of days and I'll try to explain the geologic function that gave rise to such a diverse collection of mountains. Funny thing, the pictures in the banner will represent several divergent habitats, but each one is found in the confines of a mere 6,000 acres, all a short hiking distance from one another.

For now, I'm attaching pictures of me and Brother (as I interrupt his afternoon biscuit-in-milk time), several fun guys who made autumn surveying a blast, and a lovely old growth beech tree from Crowley's Ridge.

While I realize I'm not a great writer, I've had fun ginning up interesting aspects of southeast Missouri's natural and cultural history. I've left behind several topics that I really wanted to cover (vigilante Night Riders of Reelfoot Lake, mussels, deer...can't believe I never wrote about deer), and might (in an uncustomary fit of nostalgia) fit them into the context of the Ozark Highlands. Regardless, I hope, above all else, that as you drive through southeast Missouri on your way to Memphis or Chicago, you'll take time to see the sand prairies, the old growth forests, and the relictual sand forests of Crowley's Ridge. There are a few good places to eat, some nice vistas, some interesting history sites in the area. While I always thought of Missouri as a bland fly-over state like Iowa, I've since realized it's a truly dynamic state, rich with resources and certainly worth exploring.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Into the woods

Several months ago, I ranted about how American children don't spend enough time enjoying nature. Richard Louv's book, The Last Child in the Woods has inspired my agency to create an initiative called "No Child Left Inside" geared towards getting kids back into the woods, back to nature. More nature-oriented programs are brought to schools, classes are specifically invited to visit state parks, and teachers are encouraged to recognize the need for unscheduled play outside.

It dawned on me today as I was stomping around a particularly pristine patch of Missouri's oak-hickory woodlands that American children are not the only ones suffering from a nature deficiency. I've been in a really bad place lately, extremely tense about moving, change, my new job. I spend time in the woods almost everyday. The woods across the road are rich, thick woods, but they're sick. They're not as biodiverse as they should be and I know it. I hiked around some of Missouri's healthiest ecosystems today, flipping rocks looking for salamanders, collecting acorns and hickory nuts, going way off the beaten trail. About 30 minutes into my afternoon, I felt lighter. An hour passes, and I feel all the tension of the past few weeks drop to my sides, left alone in the leaf litter.

It makes me wonder tonight if American adults had easy access to 5,000 uninterrupted acres of woods, would the country be a better place? Would everyone be so tense? So angry? So hateful? Now, if some evil drug manufacturer could encapsulate the freedom of walking through healthy woods in an antidepressant, we probably wouldn't even be at war anymore.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Beaujolais Nouveau est arrive!

Every November 14, Americans herald the arrival of a traditionally lovely, charming, fun little French wine with parties in airport hangars. I've only been to one Beaujolais Nouveau party in Wisconsin, but I imagine they're all the same: fancy people in velvet clothes and heels feeding on baked brie and apricots, standing around waiting for the wine shipment to arrive from France to Madison, New Orleans, New York (or any other decent-sized town that contains enough wine lovers to mandate a welcoming party for a short-lived red wine). I, of course, wear cotton and wool, lots of layers, and sensible shoes, because I don't want to lower the efficiency of my immune system by spending the November evening in an airport hangar.

Every year's Beaujolais is different. Two years ago it tasted like turpentine with an Alka-Seltzer added to it. Last year, it reminded me of cheap grape jelly, which can be fine in certain circumstances. In 2000, it tasted salty. I think I liked 1999 a lot, but I can't remember it well. I remember that I bought a lot of it for Thanksgiving dinner with Alyssa but I'm certainly not the type to keep a "wine journal," so I don't remember anything else about it. Nouveau is easy to come by in New Orleans, of course. Easy to find in Brooklyn, where huge posters are hung outside every bistro and haute cuisine restaurant advertising availability. Several chateaux produce Nouveau, but for the past two years, I've only been able to locate George DuBoeuf's. His is the Nouveau with the terrible label, traditionally a brightly colored Matisse rip-off with a clunky serifed font. Gold leaf. Awful label and (usually) a mediocre wine.

Columbia, Missouri. Several days after the release. We made the first shipment of items into my new house (which looks totally different in daylight...neighborhood looks rundown...stairs leading to the basement are about to fall tire stains on the matte finish walls...frog bath mat might not fit in the bathroom....yes, I wanted an old home, I remind myself, and a smaller ecological footprint.). After a brief meeting with my charming landlady (Molly, ever sweet, growled at her), after listening to loathesome Top 40 music pumped from the porch across the street, after assessing the invasive species populations alive and well in my new backyard, after defying physics to fit a 1930s oak desk into the study, after watching my poor little dog slip and slide all over my wonderful hardwood floors that I so earnestly desired, I, guilt-stricken, scared of change, overwhelmed by the exotics and hopeful that the new neighborhood really isn't that tough, decided to foray into the downtown wine shop in search of Beaujolais Nouveau from whichever available chateau.

Columbia's great. Fabulous restaurants. Bike paths everywhere (but not on the major thoroughfares, where another cyclist was killed this week). Progressive politics. Curbside recycling. Urban green spaces, actively managed. Really good service, where folks behind the counter look you in the eye and say "hey, thanks..." Top notch university (It's no Kansas, but close). Big oaks. Rolling hills. And TWO wine shops within a stone's throw apart.

"You should really just pay a few dollars more for the Villages." Pardon? "Yeah, I only stock DuBoeuf because Nouveau isn't that good, overall."
"Yeah, but it's the tradition...," I countered, "Villages is like selling out. There are better ones than DuBoeuf. And that label...." When Nouveau ages past 2or 3 months, it's called Beaujolais Villages and is available for years. It's fine, really, but it's no Nouveau, which can only be properly consumed between November 14 and Christmas. The aging process alters Nouveau, which is made from delicate little grapes in one part of France. I don't know what happens to all of those unsold Nouveau bottles purchased by wine shops countrywide. In New Orleans, the stores just put them on sale for $8.99 the day after Christmas for the folks who really don't care. Magically, by New Year's Eve, they're gone.

The sommelier returned to the fancy people drinking Petite Syrah out of a decanter. I scoured the place, sure that I would find a hidden case of Joseph Drouhin's classic off-white, engraved Nouveau label. I found some outrageously priced Oregon pinot noirs that I'll never get to try and some interesting wines that Alyssa and I have tried together that I'll definitely invest in later. But in the whole store, only one Nouveau. He didn't really have a reason to lie to me about it, did he...

I'll never be able to make it to the downtown wine shop's daily 5pm tasting with my new job, but I really wanted to introduce myself, to let the fancy sommelier know that even though he disappointed me today with his solitary Beaujolais, and even though I looked like a hayseed in jeans, that I'd be back with questions and a checkbook. I admit it. I cook with wine. I like it. I consume it. Considering that here, in southeast Missouri, I'm still trying to manage bags upon bags of recyclable glass by lying to the Cape County Recycling Commission (who regularly asks, "so, you drink wine, olive oil and no beer? And you live in Cape?"), that Beaujolais Nouveau bottles from 2005 are still languishing in my garage, I imagine in Columbia, they'll know my name and maybe even order a better Beaujolais Nouveau next year with my bidding. Of course, I'll be able to recycle every bottle I drink without having to lie about my address, too.

Oh! Right! DuBoeuf's Nouveau is fine this year. Better than last. More pinot than not, which is key. Who knows about the other great chateaux. I bet you can find them in St. Louis.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

How appealing!

It's official. The USACE has decided to appeal the ruling against the St. John's-New Madrid Floodway Project. The Environmental Defense Fund argued successfully last month that the Corps' project to stop flooding in southeast Missouri neglected rough game fish habitat. The Corps filed an appeal hours before the official cutoff hour of midnight, November 14, 2007 to counter the argument. The appeal sits on the Solicitor General's desk in Washington, D.C. tonight, awaiting approval.

Several things can happen now: The Corps can appeal the ruling and revise the Environmental Impact Study (EIS) which details the impacts of closing the gap to fish habitat. The Corps can offer to install the mitigation plan (restoration of 8,000 acres of bottomland hardwood forests and swamp habitat) without the project being completed. Or, finally, the Corps can revise the entire mitigation plan, allowing for more fish habitat that wasn't ever included in the original plan.

Here's the part that has me clicking my heels tonight: regardless of the ruling, the park will have a restored hydrology project. Whether through the Corps or through state funding, the federal environmental impact study requires that hydrology is restored to the park. If hydrology, the dynamic flood regimes that gave rise to these ancient forests, is not restored, the forest will die. Hydrology could be restored faster and easier if the appeal passes the courts, but if it doesn't, the Missouri congressional delegation could invite a legislative fix which would overturn the court for the sake of a worthwhile project. The last time the legislative overturn affected a project was for a measly $40,000 project. The Corps project is estimated at $87 million. Let's hope the appeal is accepted...

Tuesday, November 06, 2007


My Thai basil was bruised by this morning's frost. Temperatures dropped to the 30s last night for the first time since March. I bid farewell to my thriving oregano, parsley, and basil plants today, all of whom played important roles in my culinary adventures this season. Tonight's frost is supposed to be the killer; outdoor plants move inside on nights like this one. I have a colander full of green tomatoes.

I imagine my zinnia bed will be a desiccated wreck in the morning. My dahlias will look like rotting slime. The last pictures: a dinnerplate dahlia (yellow), a sachem on a late season zinnia.

The woods are lovely right now, full of yellow and red leaves littering the forest floor. Deciduous holly has set fruit, bright red berries essential to wintering bird populations. The last of the woodland asters are in full bloom across the woods.

The winter bird species are back. A Northern harrier hangs out at the park entrance every afternoon. Since days end earlier now, I have to complete my run before 5. Now, it's just past 8, and the kitchen is already cleaned up after dinner. The short stack of books breathes down my neck; this is the season of productivity, indeed.

Hedgehog (Hericium erinaceus)

I walk the little two mile trail in the park about three days a week. Lately, I've been tracking the maturity of a whole suite of interesting mushrooms growing on the downed oaks, hickories and maples. Today, I discovered a newly fallen tree across the trail, a mighty swamp chestnut oak, covered in these giant (one foot across!), shaggy mushrooms.

Hedgehog mushrooms (also called Bearded Tooth and Bear's Head mushrooms) grow on wounded oaks and dead beech and maple trees east of the Rockies. They are most commonly found in the South and are one of the few edible mushrooms that has no poisonous look-alikes. As usual, when I discovered the hedgehog mushroom, it had already turned yellow, the sign of old age. The mushroom had matured past the prime harvest time. Hedgehogs should be harvested when solid white so as to avoid any bitter aftertaste. Used in Japanese and Chinese medicine and cooking, hedgehog mushrooms pack a powerful antioxidant punch and have been used to regulate blood lipid and glucose levels.

H. erinaceus is the only North American species that forms a single clump of spines. Other species of Hericium mushrooms suspend their spines from branching structures. However, when immature, other species can appear to have only one clump of spines. If wanting to harvest the mushroom, it doesn't matter which species you've found, whether the immature branching one or the single clump species, because all members of the genus are edible.

Mycologists claim that hedgehog mushrooms taste like lobster. They recommend eating them with a cheese-butter sauce, maybe a béchamel? If I had taken the trail 2 days ago when the hedgehog was at its prime, I could have slipped it surreptitiously into tonight's Choux de Bruxelles à la Milanaise . Instead, I'll watch as the mice make mince of it later this week.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Perennis, a newsletter

The anonymity of this format has its downsides. While it's nice to sit here, at my 1940s table next to a dusty wooden chess set writing into space, I often wonder who, besides my family and close friends, ever reads my rantings. There was that lady who played badminton who wrote a comment about tennis. And there was that French guy who responded to my US Open post that Gasquet was, indeed, dreamy (at least his backhand was). But times like this, when I'm trying to find local support and involvement, I'd like to know who actually reads this thing.

This past summer, my enthusiastic entomologist, a colleague with my sister agency, and a Botany professor all confronted me in a matter of three days: "Why don't you start a Native Plant Society chapter for southeast Missouri?" They know I have a tireless enthusiasm for the native plants of southeast Missouri, that I stop my car to check out sedges in ditches and have allowed half of my yard to succeed from a manicured lawn to an early successional woodland. The turtle project is over. Plant surveys are complete. Burn season hasn't really started yet. I have no excuse not to start drumming up local support for a native plant society chapter. The first edition of a newsletter, named "Perennis" after the lovely swamp milkweed, Asclepias perennis was completed about 10 minutes ago. The Latin term perennis, by the way, means "everlasting, continuous, for a long time," which is what I would expect of a local NPS chapter.

So, I invite any and all interested parties to join a handful of native plant enthusiasts for an organizational meeting on November 16, 5 pm, at the restaurant at River Ridge (outside of Commerce). Considering that the statewide chapter has had the last 3 annual meetings in the vicinity, I think it's high time we celebrate our own natural heritage.

(And if anyone wants copies of the informative, well-designed first issue of the newsletter, just drop a line.)

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Quercus macrocarpa

Visitors to southeast Missouri's forests should be careful these days. The bur oak acorns are starting to fall, and despite the spring frost and the summer drought, they are big and plentiful this year. Falling from an average tree canopy of 140 feet, the plum-sized nuts can cause minor bruising if they manage to find your head.

The park is home to Missouri's co-champion bur oak, a title it shares with a noble tree located in an open field outside of Columbia. It's almost impossible to capture the size and grandeur of the park's bur oak because several other enormous oaks (and a whole suite of smaller maples and hackberries) grow right next to it. The tree outside of Columbia, large, alone, and tidy is featured in a sunset picture on the cover of Don Kurz's Trees of Missouri. Last year I made a short pilgrimage to see the co-champion; it may be a few feet wider, a little taller, but it looks smaller than the one in the park. Nevertheless, without the historic reverence due to a huge bur oak of the same size and age class as the co-champion, the park's woods would have been harvested and converted into agricultural fields long ago.

A 300+ year old bur oak, located on a gravel road in Mississippi Co., served as a meeting place for local citizens. There are few landmarks in the area, so to "meet at the big oak" became a custom. Children often played in the woods surrounding the stately bur oak and every fall, locals burned off the woods around it to gather hickory nuts. And while this hasn't been documented, per se, I imagine the local squirrel and deer hunters also appreciated the woods around the big bur oak.

So, in 1937, alarmed with the rampant destruction of southeast Missouri's forests and, essentially, the rural way of life, citizens rallied behind the bur oak. They began raising money to buy the tree from Three States Timber Co. Local schoolchildren jumped into the act, saving nickels and dimes at the height of economic depression. After the community had pooled together $1,000, a small group of citizens appealed to the governor of Missouri, asking him to buy the tree and the surrounding woods from the timber company. The state's burser, like the rest of the country, had fallen on hard times. The plight of this small patch of woods in southeast Missouri, however, was printed in newspapers throughout the Midwest and immediately caught the attention of philanthropists.

St. Louis native Jacob Babler stepped up to the plate. Other, anonymous donors pitched in to help the local citizens save their woods. By 1938, all of the combined efforts equalled $8,000. Gov. Lloyd Stark furnished the rest of the money needed to buy the big oak tree and the adjacent woods from the timber company. The bur oak was saved! Foresters from all over the world began flocking to the area to pay homage to the bur oak. What they found was not just one big oak, but hundreds of exemplary trees, many the largest of their kind in the country. By 1961, 16 trees from the 1,004 acres of protected woods had been designated as National Champions. There were more champion trees per square foot here in southeast Missouri than in the entire Shenandoah Valley. Bur oak, swamp chestnut oak, cottonwood, bald cypress, Shumard oak, shellbark hickory, slippery elm, et al.--all the largest on record for Missouri and the United States. So much attention had been paid to the big trees in Missouri's bootheel, but the ecological systems which gave rise to them went largely ignored.

In the early 1950s, the cherished bur oak was struck by lightning. Foresters offered advice on how to save it from certain death and the base of the tree was filled with concrete. By the late 1950s, an executive decision was made to take down the now dead 335 year old big bur oak. To fell the tree required the labor of 6 men and 3 two man saws. Brother says he has never heard anything louder than when that stately old giant fell. Cross sections were cut and distributed to the Chamber of Commerce, state parks, and other interested parties. Articles ran in several Missouri papers about the tree cutting event. No part of the tree was given to a timber company.

By the early 1960s, localized ditching projects had destroyed all the rivers, swamps and sloughs in the bootheel, turning them from natural waterways into straight line levee systems. The lake and swamp located half a mile away from the cherished bur oak was drained and the regular flooding that gave rise to the big oak and the rest of the forest was forever removed to make way for agriculture. In fact, recent dendrochronological work has revealed that the last class of oaks regenerated roughly 80 years ago, just as the drainage system was completed. So, while the woods were saved from the impending timber harvest in the late 1930s, the processes that formed the woods were resolutely removed in the course of 30 years.

The co-champion bur oak might be the last of the generation in the park. After two years of searching for smaller oaks to take its place when it falls, I've come up empty. It's not just bur oaks that aren't regenerating, it's every oak. And cypress. And hickory. The woods are succeeding unnaturally, becoming overrun with drought-tolerant species like hackberry and boxelder. Without flood regimes and the nutrient load that comes with them, the woods will continue to succeed, continue a rapid march away from an oak-hickory forest to a hackberry-maple woodland, a landscape now common in other altered floodplains. When I go to the rich, ancient woods, they whisper to me, "Help me, I'm dying," but without restored hydrology, there's not a thing I can do about it.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

"Dry, cluttered space"

When I first moved to Missouri in the summer of 2003 for seasonal employment, I lived in a maintenance shed. Half the shed held tractors and tools, while the other half had a desk, a bed, a camp-style shower, and a couch. The wall separating the living quarters from the maintenance area didn't quite reach the ceiling, so on workday mornings, I was invariably woken up by that noxious stench of cigarette smoke coming from the maintenance staff. The floors of the shed were concrete, light was provided by a dramatic single bulb dangling from the ceiling (whose operational string was too high for me to reach without standing on the desk), and the recent installation of plumbing left a hole in the wall big enough for a small opossum to traipse into the shed every night, knocking over dishes in search of food.

I liked the change of scenery that the rural quarters provided. I liked living on a gravel road that became inaccessible after heavy rain events. I liked having morels grow outside my door. I liked the nuthatches that crept around the white oaks in front of my shed. Their persistent, unfamiliar "quank!" always made me laugh. I grew accustomed to spotty cell phone service, to the lack of available groceries, to the Ozark accent that can be almost unintelligible to a New Orleanian.

After my first week, I decided to finally sit down on the cheap, foam couch in my new living quarters. As I sat down with a bowl of soup, 60, maybe 75, maybe 100 mice fell out of the couch, quickly scrambling all over the concrete floors of my maintenance shed. I slept in my tent for several months after that, going inside only to shower, make coffee, and empty the 20 Sherman live traps that I had set up to repatriate the white-footed mice back to the woods where they belonged. Every morning, I had to lure the opossum out of my quarters with a plate of scrambled eggs.

Before I moved to Missouri, I read Sue Hubbell's A Country Year, her charming account of experiences as a New Yorker recently relocated the Ozarks to tend to bee hives. It's a fine read, regardless of where you live. She explained why Missourians don't believe in a late afternoon sherry hour, how to deal with the road grater (you don't tip him, however much you want to), and finally, most importantly, she taught me about the commonality of the brown recluse in Missouri.

They're a part of life here. A recent study revealed that populations of brown recluses reside in 70% of Missouri homes. The spider's range is mid-Missouri down to Texas. I don't think they're very common in Louisiana, so I had never seen one before I moved here. On my second day of work, I was warned before heading into the attic to "watch out for brown recluses!" I rushed back down the stairs to consult my sister agency's guide to spiders: "Brown recluses," they say, "thrive in dry, cluttered spaces." This Ozark park's attic can only be classified as the perfect habitat for the spider. Literally pounds upon pounds of unused Halloween and Christmas decorations are stored in this attic in anticipation of some mythical party atmosphere summarily contrary to the park's mission.

Hubbell tells the story of her first brown recluse bite and how she lived to deal with the spiders. They generally live up to their name, preferring undisturbed clothing, old boxes, anyplace that doesn't see a lot of light. Brown recluses are such a part of living in Missouri, as Hubbell points out, that everyone just expects them:
Brown recluses cannot climb smooth surfaces, and I often find them trapped in the bathtub or the sink, skittering about trying to escape. A friend and her daughter stopped in for tea not long ago. I made the tea in a pot and handed out cups. Accustomed to country living, the daughter wisely peered into her cup before I poured the tea. "Hmmm! A brown recluse," she said calmly, and we dumped the spider out.

I learned from her book to always check my cups, bowls, shoes, and towels. Every item of clothing gets a firm shake before I put it on. Every shoe is emptied of potential spiders before I put it on my foot.

I finally left the maintenance shed after a couple of summers for the fancier digs of southeast Missouri, my sprawling house built with steel beams to withstand earthquakes. Lots of space, little furniture, unused rooms. In one room, we've stored almost 2 years' worth of recyclables. You see, I have to take my recycling to Cape Girardeau, but to recycle in Cape, you have to be a resident of the county, which I'm not. I truly despise having to lie about my residency to the man who helps unload my trunk. Before he ever asks, I nervously blurt out "I live on Bessie!" A friend of mine lived there once and surely would have accrued as many olive oil bottles, dog food cans, wine bottles and junk mail as I have. I just can't throw away recyclables.

Sorting through two years of recyclables has uncovered lots of dead brown recluses and a host of live ones, which were either released outside or killed by the weight of my running shoe. While the recycling room was definitely cluttered, it did not house a food source for the spiders. They subsist on insects, and aside from the occasional escape of the dart frogs' walking fruit flies, the house is free of insects. I don't see the cute little white-footed woodland mice inside, either, and I certainly don't have an opossum to keep me company. Occasionally a scrappy, gray field mouse enters the house from the adjacent soybean fields. I lose sleep until it's caught. Of course, in the fancy house I live in, I don't have gaping holes in my walls, but brown recluses still manage to get in.

Brown recluse bites hurt, and the younger the spider, the more painful the bite. Early treatment of the bite is highly recommended, even if the victim is unclear how sensitive he is to the spider's venom. Some folks are sensitive to the bites, while others merely experience a mild irritation and a small pimple-like bump (which causes the health care provider to ask, repeatedly and with disdain, "are you sure it was a brown recluse? How do you know...."). The venom essentially disables the body's immune system where it is injected. Any bacteria, including flesh-eating bacteria and streptococcus, can come into contact with the punctured skin and kill the tissue cells, leaving behind a deep pit about the size of the dime. Treatment for brown recluse bites involves a tetanus shot and a full course of antibiotics. While they remain the most venomous spider in Missouri, contrary to local lore, they can't kill you.

Some Missourians spend lots of money fumigating their homes to eradicate brown recluses. When they do, they knock out harmless little jumping spiders while poisoning the air and every available surface with a toxic chemical. I've learned to live with spiders, and I'm getting less nervous about mice in the house. In fact, by the end of my first summer in Missouri, I had grown so deft at checking live traps and releasing the animals that I didn't run maniacally to the woods with the traps anymore. I just moseyed away from the house, opened the trap door, and threw the mice out for the owls. While I genuinely feel that both spiders and mice would be much better off outside, in nature, I take their presence in the house as evidence that I live, happily, I think, in rural Missouri.